Saïd’s Dr Andrew White and Jon Stokes discuss a leader’s role in the modern world
The second talk in the 2019 Green Templeton Lectures on Leadership series, convened by Governing Body Fellow Professor Sue Dopson, was called, ‘Educating Leaders’. Green Templeton’s Anna Clemente, MPhil Politics: European Politics and Society, reports from the evening:
On 31 January, Green Templeton welcomed two enlightening speakers as part of its 2019 Leadership Lecture series: Dr Andrew White, Governing Body Fellow at Green Templeton and Associate Dean for Executive Education and Corporate Relations at Saïd Business School, and Jon Stokes, Senior Fellow in Management Practice, also at Saïd.
The theme was ‘Educating leaders’, and the two speakers offered complementary presentations on what the role of leaders is in our current fast-paced, unpredictable environment. If we can sum up a major takeaway from the evening, it is to embrace the chaos and use it to your advantage.
Jon Stokes started by addressing the question of “what do leaders need to get better at?”, presenting his latest research with Sue Dopson. The research stemmed from an important realisation: leaders these days are struggling with how to perform their role. As our society becomes more complex, so does their position. Indeed, society’s attitudes to leaders and institutions have also evolved, with some becoming quite suspicious of authority.
The research wanted to find out what the role of a leader is in today’s society, by speaking to a range of leaders and asking them, “what do leaders need to get better at?” They conducted semi-structured interviews with 20 people, including heads of organisations and members of the top team across public and private sectors.
Recurrent observations pointed out “how power has changed” and “hierarchical power has been replaced in large measure by collective power”, highlighting the society we live in is different from the one in which they grew up. In particular, frequent observations pointed out how leaders are “being accountable but not in control”. Responding to internal opposition takes up much more time and energy, and greater diversity – while positive – makes leadership more complex. Moreover, as one of the respondents put it, it feels like “leading in a glass box”, meaning a sense of little privacy and of being under inspection 24/7.
The responses have been very consistent, and can be categorised under three themes: working with the enemy (within), leading in the open, and working with plurality.
In terms of working with the enemy, the increase in the availability of information and in standards of transparency translates into an increase in internal conflict. Dissent is the new norm, so it is fundamental to manage it rather than stamp it down. Opposing views can no longer just be ignored. Moreover, relationships are more transactional, and commitment, loyalty and trust are more short term, which reduces the levers of influence of leaders. Organisational loyalty and unity around shared values is less feasible in a contested world. This means leaders need to get better at conflict resolution and they should expect extensive criticism. They should also start leading from an emotional place, rather than just an intellectual stance.
Secondly, for what concerns leading in the open, in an era where everyone has access to information, you cannot just ignore debate, as disagreement is natural. It is fundamental to acknowledge your own mistakes and ignorance, owning your vulnerability and working with it rather than covering it up. Essentially, leadership is a conversation.
Finally, in terms of working with plurality, leaders need to accept that in a much more diverse workplace their point of view is one among many. As a response, they should try to develop the base, ensuring their message spreads throughout the organisation.
This leads to another key theme, the need to shape the context. To do this, one needs to lean into uncertainty, paradox, ambiguity and owning the sense of vulnerability. As Stokes put it, it’s normal to be feeling like you’re in a swamp, and “if it doesn’t feel messy you are not leading”. Shaping the narrative, the stories we tell about ourselves, by focusing and influencing the conversation, is just as important: “the universe is made up of stories, not atoms.” Similarly, working with purpose is necessary to engage your employees. People look for a sense of belonging and dignity in a complex world, and for their job to be socially meaningful. A good leader should spend time understanding why people come to work.
From the interviews, it appears evident the world is no longer the same, and the role of the leader needs to change with it. After the 4th Industrial revolution, characterised by hyper-connectivity & machine intelligence, the world is in a state of “disequilibrium”, as Mallaret suggested, with increased interdependence, complexity, velocity and transparency. This cries out for a different sort of leadership style.
As David Tuckett suggests, another key feature of the contemporary world is “radical uncertainty”, changing the way we make decisions. In a world of increased chaos you can only make an estimate of the situation you are in and what is the best course of action. This is compounded by the fact that we are submerged by data which, however, is old. In a nutshell, risk is calculable, radical uncertainty is not.
This means leadership should go beyond models of command and control, or emotional leadership. In this new landscape, leaders should:
- Shape the narrative: we live in language. Language and narrative construct reality, and they are a source of power and influence.
- Develop collective intelligence: build connection and collaboration. Learning and teaching organisations are the future, based on the model of collective, hive knowledge.
- Nudge the context: develop situational and contextual intelligence. As one of the respondents put it, “leaders are like farmers, they don’t create crops, but the conditions for crops to grow.”
- Co-evolve structures: challenge power bases. In order to release innovation and creativity, old structures need to be challenged, and to be evolved with members.
- Pluralise: increase diversity. This leads to more diverse capabilities, creative thinking and problem solving.
To conclude, Stokes made the case for remaining in the mystery and doubt phase longer, quoting Keats, who suggested that a great thinker is one who is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Or, more plainly, it is okay to be confused!
This conclusion fits nicely with Dr Andrew White’s presentation, ‘From Mountain to Mountain: Leading for Transformation’. His starting point was similar: how is the world of being CEO changing? He conducted around 150 interviews with leaders at Davos, asking “is your world changing? If so, how is your organisation developing people to change?”
What he noticed in the answers was the massive use of abstract concepts (i.e. doubt, trust, authenticity, purpose). The idea that the world is increasingly confusing came from the honest answer given by one of the interviewees: “I feel like I’m at the top of the mountain, but I’m surrounded by fog, the mountain seems crumbling underneath and I don’t have any idea where to go.” This is indicative of CEOs who have reached their goals, but have multiple challenges ahead (competitors, sustainability, regulation, 4th IR, health, etc.) and do not have a clear path forward. Because of this, they end up talking platitudes, avoiding having to face the challenges and make decisions.
Dr White’s solution to get out of this impasse is a method of meditation / visualisation that can unlock a new type of honest conversation, getting them to admit where they are in their leadership journey and to navigate to a successful future. He describes it as similar to a therapy process, where leaders come out at the end with real purpose rather than just gloss for what they are doing. In his own definition, purpose is “not a polished statement of purpose—but significant decisions grounded in a deep understanding of purpose characterised by a quiet sense of service to something greater than the immediate needs of customers and short-term demand of investors.” The method, which he has tried among 5,000 people overall in the past years, relies on questions for transparency:
• What are you not discussing that you need to talk about?
• What do you always discuss, but never resolve?
• What spaces do you need to create to have these conversations?
• What would be different in three years’ time if you had these conversations and things would change after them?
Additionally, these are the questions to make progress out of the fog:
• What do you need/want to take with you?
• What do you need/want to leave behind?
• What do you need to transform?
• What do you need to create?
An example of a company that has embarked in a successful journey to find purpose is CVS Health, an American retail pharmacy company. Given the company’s main purpose is health, they decided they could no longer keep selling cigarettes in their stores. The decision was authentic, as taking cigarettes out meant a significant hit to their profits. Clearly, not all CEOs would be ready to take a similar decision, as the economic personal incentives to not rock the boat are huge. Nonetheless, this “business therapy” that starts from an honest conversation could alleviate the lack of purpose that many companies experience, and the dissonance between what leaders say they are doing and what they actually do.
Summing up the main takeaway from the two presentations, leaders should embrace the fact that the world is complex and chaotic, moving away from the idea that they are supposed to see further than everyone else. Instead, leadership is based more and more on creating meaning and purpose, by building the conditions for it to emerge from the bottom up, by embracing diversity and collective knowledge, and by having honest, reflective conversations about where the organisation is, and where it wants to go.
Find out more about the other talks in the 2019 GTC Lectures on Leadership Series:
- A historical view on leadership and change with Warwick’s Professor Keith Grint
Thursday 17 January at 18:00
- Insights from female CEOs on their leadership journey with Dr Andromachi Athanasopoulou
Thursday 7 February at 18:00
- Hidden from view: senior leaders’ experiences of depression and anxiety with Saïd’s Sally Maitlis
Thursday 14 February at 18:00